THE SEVENTIES A witch’s brew of a decade
Peter C. Newman
perhaps the event that best brackets the decade suddenly end ing-one claim we can hold onto as
proof that the Seventies weren’t just the Fifties in a leisure suit—was the return, late last year, of Jacques and Louise Cossette-Trudel from their exile in France. It was during the closing months of 1970, after all, that this ardent couple and their half-dozen colleagues brought the nation to its knees when, as members of the Front de Libération du Québec, they kidnapped James Cross, the British trade commissioner in Montreal, and ordered the broadcast of revolutionary tracts. Nearly a decade later, they came back and ordered a club sandwich.
Between the Cossette-Trudels’ departure and their homecoming both the province they are accused of having violently tried to “liberate” and the country they hoped to humiliate had altered more radically than they could ever have imagined. Only a decade ago Canadians were aglow with post-Expo spirit. I remember touring that magic island on the St. Lawrence and writing in the exhilaration of the moment: “This is the greatest thing we have ever done as a
nation. Surely the modernization of Canada will be dated from this occasion, and from this Fair. The more you see of it, the more you’re overwhelmed by a feeling that if this is possible, if this subarctic, self-obsessed country of 20 million people can put on this kind of show, it can do almost anything.”
We had a freshly minted leader in Pierre Trudeau, a cool man in a hot world doing his grainy thing, maintaining a sense of inner repose and outward excitement, reminding us all that we were a young nation with unexploited possibilities. His face had that incandescent glow that a thousand photographers’ flashbulbs impart to the flesh, as he invited Canadians to share in his quest for “a just society.” The Mounties and their musical ride were still our finest ambassadors. We counted for something in world councils; the OECD in Paris proclaimed that our economic future had few limits. Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s long-awaited pledge about the 20th century belonging to Canada seemed about to be fulfilled. In Quebec, on Jan. 17, 1970, Robert Bourassa, then billed as a reformer, became leader of the Quebec Liberal party and 102 days later swept the polls on a straight federalist ticket.
Now, on the tremulous edge of the Eighties, René Lévesque’s government, which shares the CossetteTrudels’ objectives, if not methods, is firmly ensconced in power, poised to call a plebiscite on its separatist intentions. The intractable dual phenomena of high unemployment and rising inflation is draining our economic vitality. Instead of dreaming about the promise of the Canadian experiment, even the post-Expo optimists have begun to debate its foreclosure.
The Seventies have been a witch’s brew of a decade. As stealthily as a thief in the night whose silent passing leaves a sense of disquiet rather than the grief of stolen treasures, the decade robbed us of the natural optimism
Only a decade ago Canadians were aglow with a post-Expo spirit
which once anchored the Canadian character. It was during the Seventies that we began to turn in on ourselves, to shut out most of the rest of the world, to doubt our collective facility to survive and our individual capacity to deal with the forces of social, economic and politi-
cal dissension threatening the country’s future.
The historians will probably reduce the Seventies to a marginally significant period of transition. But for those of us who lived through it, the decade signalled less a time of transformation than the end of something. And what was ending was the delicate but durable consensus that has kept Canadians together. Our national symbols—the RCMP chief among them—have been debased and even while existing public institutions, social ethics and individual values were being challenged and abandoned on all sides, no new ones were being embraced.
The Canadian genius for compromise and conformity, the willingness of people to subjugate their regional interests and personal feelings for sake of the national interest, was dead or dying. By this, the last, decisive year of the decade, we no longer had, as we could once believe, merely two solitudes, but 23 million solitudes, based on the distemper of our individual discontents. It’s as if a centre of action had broken down in each one of us—as if we were living through a spasm of history in which society no longer shaped personalities, but men and women preferred to plot their own, personal journeys to selffulfilment. This innocence by association produced a laid-back generation of narcissists, less interested in life than in lifestyles, caught up in their own private alchemies to the exclusion of national concerns. We became preoccupied
with surface appearances, symbols which might somehow reassure us that regardless of the rest of the country, we—each of us who can—are still “All right, Jack!”
This self-indulgent attitude in turn disconcerted the politicans who couldn’t decide whether they should switch from pretending to be agitators to pretending to be statesmen. They became neither and lost their mandates in the process. The Left fragmented itself into confusion and impotence; the Right co-opted the political Centre. Among our party leaders (including provincial premiers elected before 1970) only Pierre Trudeau survives the decade still in office, if not entirely in power, a poignant reminder of his—and our—shattered hopes.
A great deal happened during the Seventies, but not much seemed to change. Unlike the Sixties, it was a decade that never managed to spawn any generational voices of its own. The young grew up separately, sharing few hot causes or cold exiles, dropping back to draw their ideals from the smugness of the sleepy Fifties.
Building on the activist momentum of issues imported from the U.S., the Sixties’ generation went on a psychic rampage permanently shaking the very foundations of Canadian society by challenging its collective faith in the Protestant Ethic (the idea that the highest satisfaction of all comes from a hard day’s work well done) and ques-
The survivors of the Sixties exchanged their buckskins for jogging suits
tioning the worship of moderation as an essential ingredient in social change. Dr. Vivian Rakoff, chief of psychiatry at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, sees the Seventies as a period of evaluation and reminiscence: “We have the sense of having come through a firestorm.”
The Sixties short-circuited all our
nervous systems. Richard Rovere of The New Yorker tagged it “this slum of a decade,” but for most of those who formed its vanguards (marching to Ernest Hemingway’s dictum that whatever makes you feel good, is good) the memories are not all downers. Their daze of puberty turned into a binge of sensuality, with promiscuity, marijuana and the pseudo-military costumery of revolution becoming symbols of their defiance and rejection of middle-class values. Suddenly it seemed as if all of Canadian society had reorganized itself around the problem of getting kids safely through the teen-age years. Youth was all we wrote, sang and talked about. In 1969, John Lennon made a pilgrimage to Toronto’s Varsity Stadium to stage Woodstock-North, a match-lit
affair dedicated to peace, love and international understanding. Nine years later, the Canada Jam rock festival at Mosport was distinguished only by the amount of beer consumed. Today’s 14to 24-year-olds, bombarded with hyped rock and roll stripped of its ideological undercurrents, have turned superachievers, bucking for the 20-odd places reserved for Canadians in the frosh year of the Harvard Business School.
At the same time, the age-30-plus survivors of the Sixties have long since turned in their buckskins, commando berets and combat boots for jogging suits, have cut their hair, and now get their rushes from darting into health food stores, watching M*A*S*H* reruns and “maximizing their potential” inside the corporate pyramids they had once vowed to dislodge. Bob Bossin, best of the Sixties campus activists who was
The only political movement to survive into the Seventies has been feminism
instrumental in setting up Toronto’s Free University, has moved out of extra-parliamentary politics to practise his banjo as a member of Stringband.
Prompted by the excesses of their American counterparts, Bossin and his shock troops hoped to overturn the system, detonating a revolution that would create a radically different Canadian society. Instead, we got Joe Clark, King of Kensington, and Cuisinarts.
During the Sixties, only the
young enjoyed a “lifestyle”; now everybody does. The Sixties girl wore blue jeans and peasant blouses, let her hair grow long and natural, dabbled in drugs and group gropes, had an active sex life and adopted the birth control pill. The archetypal Woman of the Seventies wears boots the year round, has rediscovered nail polish and purple lipstick, foresaken the natural look for permed curls and still leads an active sex life, though she’s less certain about which contraceptives to use. (To accommodate one of her whims, the cosmetics makers recently came up with makeup specifically designed to stay on in bed.)
More importantly, the only political movement to survive the Sixties has been feminism. Men in the early Seventies dived into huddles as women reached out for a larger number of society’s command posts. (Cowards went “unisex.”) Flora MacDonald would never have made a significant run for the Tory leadership, Barbara Frum, Jan Tennant and Valerie Elia would not have become star broadcasters and Canada’s abortion laws would never have been changed had it not been for the women’s movement. Feminism made sex a political issue, and that’s where there was the most impact—between the sheets.
The Sixties male talked about alternatives, wore denim and T-shirts, had shaggy hair, smoked pot and “encoun-
For those who lived through it, the decade was the end of something
tered.” His Seventies counterpart has embraced the values of upward mobility and determined that he must dress and smell the part. (In 1978, male cosmetics worth an estimated $100 million were sold in Canada.) Sunbeam even has a special dryer called Li’l Red Devil designed for men to take along on business conferences. The kind of vanity that was once the private preserve of homosexuals now embraces male peacocks who are fervently masculine. The changing style in men (to suit the ideal contemporary woman) is most noticeable in the switch from the thin-lipped, neurotic movie heroes of the Fifties (James Dean, Montgomery Clift, John Garfield) through the sensitive but alienated idols of the Sixties (Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and George Segal) to the current crop of witty guys (Richard Dreyfuss, Kris Kristofferson and Jon Voight) who don’t treat women like daffodils or buddies, but can handle their new equality with competence and conviction.
Their eclipsed, expectations but flower may children have didn’t been bloom for nothing. The Sixties altered all of our habits and perceptions.
Even if Peter Lougheed and John Travolta seemed to be the most important new faces of the Seventies, many familiar personalities withstood the decade in fine fettle. Among them: John Diefenbaker, Gordon Lightfoot, John Turner, Jane Fonda, Billy Graham, Keith Davey, Barbra Streisand, Mick Jagger, Yasser Arafat, Muhammad Ali and Bobby Hull —not to mention the Montreal Canadiens, the Beatles, the New York Yankees, panty hose, marijuana and sex. Still, the most enduring legacy of that militant decade was the demand by everyone for a voice in the decisions controlling their lives. No boss can any longer jump into a situation and bark out the command “Do,” without somebody asking: “ Why?”
If the the nihilistic Seventies 2/4 had beat an anthem, of the it disco. was The free-floating gyrators of the Six-
ties have been replaced by cool automatons who flaunt their desire under the strobes in a sexually charged choreography that reduces sensuality to its crudest, most mechanical form. “Disco,” writes Andrew Kopkind, in New Times, “affirms the ‘unreal’ Seventies, emphasizing surfaces over substance, mood over meaning, body over mind, going out over staying in.”
A vibrant domestic film industry was born during the Seventies, but most Canadians still went to American movies and the big box-office smashes of the decade featured a mean shark (Jaws) and cartoon characters (Star Wars and Superman). Rock musicians became cultural heroes and even Canadians, usually slow on the entrepreneurial uptake, got the message by fielding such groups as Rush, Trooper, Chilliwack, CANO, Klaatu and Harmonium. It was O. J. Simpson who popularized the word “superstar,” and it was superstars like O. J. who made sports the biggest moneymaking entertainment around, with a lot of youngsters who grew up shooting
pucks on ice ponds in Saskatchewan suddenly finding themselves in executive salary ranges. At the same time, it was big business (through overexpansion) that diluted the quality of the game, creating an unwieldy league that produced maybe a dozen good hockey nights per season. Reggie Jackson and Charles 0. Finley kept baseball alive, but tennis and squash emerged as the decade’s fastest growing sports.
The enties great was Canadian the power saga shift of the westSevward that followed the 1973 OPEC price hikes which began to move the centre of gravity of Canadian corporate decision-making out of the economic, political and cultural nexus of the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor toward Alberta.
“Cowboy” was the epithet used by the barons of Bay Street when they first encountered Calgary’s newly influential entrepreneurs, even if, like Bob Blair, they had been educated at Choate, the American Establishment’s very own prep school, and Queen’s University. The new paladins who run Alberta don’t exactly conform to the suave mid-Atlantic patricians who still dominate Toronto’s boardrooms. But neither are they Marlboro men with bank accounts who hum Johnny Cash ditties and parade their anti-intellectual bi-
The great Canadian saga of
the Seventies was the power shift westward
ases by condemning anything printed, except dollar bills. Their conversation is peppered with the technological patios of their trade, devoid of such buzzwords as “visible trusts” and “incremental contingencies” that still dazzle them in the button-down East. Life in the New West combines creative conservatism with big-buck ostentation and the open optimism of the frontier.
The gas and oilionaires such as Bob Blair, Jack Gallagher, Jack Pierce, Bill Richards, Bob Peters, and Arne Nielsen represent an important new configuration in the Canadian power structure. “Now we can do anything anyone out of New York or Houston or London can do,” Blair said recently. “There’s a clear
We stand at a moment in Canadian history that may yet change all our lives
movement of financial power away from Toronto and Montreal into Western Canada.” Western Canada’s conventional hydrocarbon energy potential has been estimated at $65 billion. One in 10 Alberta income earners now averages more than $35,000 a year,
while one in 10 Maritimers takes home less than $3,000 a year. For the past fiscal year, Alberta chalked up a $1.6billion surplus (not including the $4.7 billion already stashed away in its Heritage Fund) while Ontario is currently budgeting for a $1.5-billion deficit.
The transfer of power is very real. Calgary now has 32 major head offices, in addition to Vancouver’s 26, and every night the 18-wheel vans roll westward, moving 1,300 newcomers a month into Alberta alone. Such bedrock Eastern institutions as Simpsons and The Globe and Mail are now owned by western-originated money pools— and more bids are in the works.
The central figure in this tilt of authority westward is Peter Lougheed, who made his definite pronouncement on the subject during the 1976 Conservative leadership contest, by demanding: “Why should I want to run Canada when I already run Alberta?” Sheik Yamani, the oil minister from Saudi Arabia, sensed the pulse of the premier’s reach while visiting the province in mid-1978 to study its tar sànds prospects. At a private Government House reception there came an awkward moment when he stared deeply into Peter Lougheed’s face, and announced to a hushed gathering: “You really do have blue eyes!”
In terms of our place in the world, most of us have fond memories of the early Seventies as a time when the Canadian dollar was still a serious currency. Yet it was a harsh decade, crammed with kidnappings, wars and the spectacle of the U.S. being ruled by an ambitious and paranoid man of dismal wit whose downfall allowed us to participate vicariously in the high drama of an event that never really touched us. We watched the Watergate embarrassments being unveiled, numbly gazing at the final bloodletting and horrors of Da Nang, Saigon and Cambodia, concluding that however bad things might be at home we were damn lucky not to be as corrupt or disingenuous as the awful Americans. We had come through our testing time with the invocation of the War Measures Act; we had already taken a cynical turn of our own. And so we attempted to escape from the outside world, longing to recreate simpler times by retreating to the comforting absolutes of hearth and home. It was not to be.
At the start of 1979 we stand at a moment in Canadian history that may yet change all of our lives and citizenships. There are no magical windows through which to proclaim the unknown, but the continuing disintegration of authority at the centre, the massive power shift westward and the threat to our integrity as a nation implicit in René Lévesque’s impending referendum-all of this and more, in the context of a people who have lost their faith in seeking solutions through political action —may yet turn the Seventies into the most decisive decade of them all. Our once peaceable kingdom has become a strange new land, its future as unpredictable as a hailstorm.Q